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Hughes 'rebirth' far from proven

Australia's careful handling of Phillip Hughes conveys how desperately they need him to bloom into a batsman of quality, and longevity

Daniel Brettig

December 6, 2012

Comments: 25 | Text size: A | A

Ricky Ponting congratulates Phillip Hughes on his hundred, Sri Lanka v Australia, 3rd Test, SSC, Colombo, 4th day, September 19, 2011
By replacing Ricky Ponting in Australia's top order, Phillip Hughes may be seen as the embodiment of the team's batting future © AFP
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Reborn. Renewed. Rejuvenated. Ready. Really?

Phillip Hughes' recall to Australia's Test side to face Sri Lanka has been accompanied by plenty of noise to the effect that it will be a new man who takes guard in Hobart next Friday. To borrow Radiohead's words, Hughes is fitter, happier, and should be more productive.

Since the humiliation of last summer's corresponding Bellerive Oval match, when Hughes completed a quartet of near identical dismissals at the hands of Chris Martin on the way to being dropped, the 24-year-old has gone on something like a journey of self-discovery.

He stood back from the inaugural Twenty20 Big Bash League in order to work on his long-form methods, signed up to play for Worcestershire in England, and worked assiduously with his long-time mentor Neil D'Costa. While at Worcester, Hughes forsook New South Wales to move to South Australia, where Adelaide's cosiness sat more neatly with his Macksville upbringing.

All these moves resulted in runs, though spread across three formats, and what appears a more expansive game that features a better range of scoring strokes right around the ground. He even survived a brief but spicy spell from Dale Steyn when playing for Australia A against the South Africans at the SCG. The national selector John Inverarity feels that Hughes is now "cherry ripe" to play, having made a "compelling" case for Worcestershire and South Australia.

But a closer glance at how Hughes has fared in first-class matches - the only truly relevant measure when pondering his readiness for the Test team - reveals a record not so much dominant as mildly presentable. Including the 158 he struck for South Australia against Victoria at the MCG during the Adelaide Test, Hughes' batting digits are as follows: 1,135 runs at 40.54 in 16 matches, three centuries.

They are hardly the sorts of numbers to have international bowlers quaking at the sight of the diminutive Hughes, nor the kinds of figures that suggest a quantum leap in the left-hander's game. Instead they reflect a gradual improvement over the course of a year, after a dire home summer in 2011-12, both for Australia and NSW.

At the time of Hughes' exit from the Test team, numerous sage observers reckoned that he would need a good two seasons of consistent run-making and re-evaluation of his approach to be ready for a return to the international arena. Inverarity himself appeared to be of that view, and has often stated his preference for young players to be given a consistent run of matches for the one team rather than shunting them up to a higher representative level the moment they show evidence of a spike in batting or bowling form.

Nonetheless, Hughes is now back into the Australian squad little more than 12 months after he left it, and in circumstances heavy with meaning. By replacing Ricky Ponting in Australia's top order, Hughes may be seen as the embodiment of the team's batting future. Of all the young players vying to be elevated to the national team, Hughes' desire for runs and long innings is the most fervent, as demonstrated by his notching of 20 first-class centuries before his 24th birthday.

But Hughes' readiness for the major tasks to face Australia in 2013, first a tour to India then dual Ashes series away and at home, will remain open to question until he faces both opponents. The selectors' curious decision to keep Hughes away from the line of fire during the South Africa series has already stirred plenty of debate, raising as it did questions about how ready they think he is to face the world's best teams.

There can be little doubt that given the lack of standout batting options around the nation, Inverarity and his panel know they have to give Hughes the very best chance to develop into a Test batsman of quality, and longevity

The use (if not abuse) of Rob Quiney in Hughes' stead was explained by the coach Mickey Arthur before the first Test in Brisbane with the reasoning that Australia needed a team of men, not boys, to face up to Graeme Smith's team. "I wouldn't want to disrespect any nation, but against a nation like South Africa right now, and we'd probably do the same against England and India, you want an experienced head to come in," Arthur said. "You can't blood a youngster against a team like South Africa. We want a guy who is very confident in his ability, a guy who knows his game backwards, and a guy that has got a little bit of experience. That gave Rob the nod."

How that reflects on Hughes is a matter for plenty of discussion, but there can be little doubt that given the lack of standout batting options around the nation, Inverarity and his panel know they have to give Hughes the very best chance to develop into a Test batsman of quality, and longevity. By holding him back until Sri Lanka's arrival they are giving Hughes the chance to settle into the team, much as Ponting helped Michael Clarke to bed down as captain by resigning his commission ahead of tours to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, before the more difficult assignments against South Africa and India.

Ponting's sense of timing in relinquishing the captaincy proved to be exemplary, and the selectors will hope that they have done similarly right by their new No. 3 batsman. For his part, Hughes must continue the upward curve of the past year under the public gaze of the same television cameras that chronicled his unhappiest of Hobart Tests last year. Australia's Ashes hopes may depend on it.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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Posted by Marcio on (December 9, 2012, 23:59 GMT)

@Clyde it is obvious that you English are simply bloated on the delusion of your own propaganda. It really is like a broken record, everyone repeating the same relentlesly negative angle over and over and over again. How you translate 9 wins and 3 losses in 17 tests into "also-ran" status, only you know. Australia's recent test record or far superior to England's, and we would have at least drawn the series against SA if not for Pattinson's breakdown in the 2nd test - as opposed to the 2-0 drubbing Eng got at home.

Posted by RandyOZ on (December 9, 2012, 0:20 GMT)

@Gilly4ever - Bailey? That's a joke, right? Thank heavens you aren't a selector!

Posted by Clyde on (December 8, 2012, 4:15 GMT)

An average of 45 in first class cricket over so many matches, more than 80, doesn't signify to me someone who will eventually average enough in Tests, even if he is the best available at present. Australia simply does not have talent at the moment and will have to put up with being an also-ran cricket nation for the time being.

Posted by Front-Foot-Lunge on (December 7, 2012, 23:09 GMT)

What a bare cupboard Australia have, Hughes's career was pretty much ruined by England and they'l be licking their lips to bowl at him again.

Posted by KrishnaRao on (December 7, 2012, 4:24 GMT)

The timing right for Phil Hughes to succeed against SL and Ind. India has a reputation to discover blooming players from overseas, Mike Gatting and Matt Hayden are the best cases in this study. May Phil Hughes have as successful a career as Matt Hayden (after his 2001 series). His good mate Usman Khawaja may have a sounder technique (like Katich vs Hayden) but has a poor conversion of 50s into 100s (like Shane Watson). Once he starts converting good starts into big scores, he will force his way into Australian Test Team.

Posted by   on (December 7, 2012, 2:54 GMT)

Has he still got that awkward technique? Centuries in county cricket shouldnt count, didnt Stewie Law top the averages in England as a geriatric?

Posted by V-Man_ on (December 7, 2012, 0:28 GMT)

Seems like they are spoon feeding Hughes. Not a good idea. Don't agree with this strategy. I never felt Hughes was a test cricket material. I would change my mind if he gets big scores against India in india and the poms. He has a habit of being dropped when he plays against the english. I won't count his performance against Sri lanka. That is just batting practise.

Posted by Mad_Hamish on (December 6, 2012, 23:29 GMT)

I'm not convinced about Hughes' transformation. We've heard it before and he came back still nicking the ball. iirc in his first 6 shield innings this year he was caught in slips in 5 of them... admittedly he made a fair few runs in those innings. He's dominated at first class level with his old technique (including some very good innings on tough wickets) but against a disciplined test pace attack he's normally failed to deliver the goods. The England attack has worked him out especially (RSA not so much, I think they got carried away trying to bounce him) I don't recall being convinced about his play against spin either so India might not be fun and success against Sri Lanka or India still won't say much about what he'll do against a good test level pace attack.

Posted by Jaffa79 on (December 6, 2012, 23:07 GMT)

Hey CarryOnRegardless - I think English fans are just amused by the lack of talent in Australian cricket. It is hillarious that an average cricketer (with the worst technique of any top order batter I have seen) is touted as a long term bet but is not trusted to score runs on some of the flattest wickets in recent memory! Khawaja may not always get the runs but at least he looks like he could be a top player; Hughes flaps like a tailender!

Posted by Chris_P on (December 6, 2012, 22:03 GMT)

@Lawton Ratnam. Hughes is the youngest player to score a century in each innings of a test match, & this against South Africa, a somewhat quality pace attack I would suggest. Having seen him for his first 3 seasons for NSW, he scored runs against all forms of attack & carried on that form in his first series. Somehow, somewhere, someone got into his ear to "fix" up his technique & he looked like a frightened rabbit in spotlights. The stint in County cricket was a positive step or him in that his technique looked a lot tighter & it appears it is paying off this season. We just hope he keeps going forward as the nature of the way he first played is still very fresh in my mind.

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Daniel Brettig Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel's chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth - a rare Australian victory that summer.
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